PrideAM: why we called out H&M's portrayal of bisexual men

PrideAM: why we called out H&M's portrayal of bisexual men

PrideAM's recent Creative Review demonstrated that there is more than one way for portrayals of LGBT+ people to ring hollow - but that shouldn't put brands off from being brave, the review's chairmen argue.

If there’s one thing every brand strives for, it’s authenticity. Social media takes no prisoners, so if a brand tries to be something they’re not – trendy, political, funny – the risk of it backfiring is huge. And the implications of that can be catastrophic. Remember Pepsi and Kendall Jenner?

And yet, the role of brands and advertising today in broadening people’s minds, opening their worlds and changing their way of thinking, has never been more important. Brands play such a central role in the lives of young people who are still working out who they are, what they want and how they want to live their lives.

Which is why initiatives such as PrideAM’s Creative Review exist. PrideAM, advertising’s LGBT+ network and a non-commercial, entirely voluntary organisation, aims to remove LGBT+ prejudice from our industry through projects such as Outvertising – a white paper exploring how to do LGBT+ inclusive advertising well - and the Creative Review, in which we assess the state of play from the perspective of our raison d’etre: the work itself.

And it is no mean feat. For three hours, 16 people – most of them LGBT+, several (but not all) involved in the creative industries – discussed, debated and analysed 13 ads which portrayed the LGBT+ community. We wanted to celebrate the ads that did it well and flag up how those who missed the mark could have done better.

Let’s get one thing straight (excuse the pun) – we applaud every positive representation of LGBT+ people in advertising.

As a society we have come such a long way in the space of one generation. So kudos to every marketing director who has signed off on gay dads, drag queens, trans men and women, lesbians on first dates – you name it. We welcome it all.

But, as the old saying goes, if you’re going to do something, do it properly.

Feature knowing humour like Rowse Honey – one of the few ads that dared to speak directly to an LGBT+ audience, rather than simply mention them in passing.

Give a nod to a political point like Apple iPhone’s very real same-sex wedding montage of home videos. Give us heightened emotional engagement in the form of Ricky Tomlinson reading a beautiful poem about families for McCain.

The Creative Review is not just about good LGBT+ ads. It’s about great ads, period. Some of the brands who came in for criticism from the panel didn’t do a bad job, they did not offend or upset, they just left them feeling, well, not a great deal. They were all well-intentioned, but in the cold light of day they just came off a bit flat or contrived.

Toyota Aygo’s "Anything goes" ad featured a whole line up of incredible drag queens but begged the question: why? To fit with a pre-agreed strapline? One of our reviewers felt it was "a borrowed interest for the sake of spectacle". Indeed, the full campaign included a series of short documentary films that give an insight into the lives of each of the drag queens, but the ad itself offered no direction as to where we might find them.

PrideAM does not just champion LGBT+ diversity, but all diversity, so for the reviewers Tesco’s "Turkey every which way" ad disappointed by depicting a Muslim family enjoying Christmas. While this scenario is, of course, very truthful, it overlooked a key issue which was the lack of availability of halal turkeys in-store.

Other brands made a bold attempt but simply missed the mark with our panel. Suitsupply, which came under fire from the panel for objectification, could expect to be praised for showing same-sex affection and desire so boldly. It’s just that in the context of their previous campaigns, they could also be accused of exploitation by creating a controversial film.

Then there’s H&M x Erdem’s "The secret life of flowers", directed by Baz Lurhmann, which was the highest profile and biggest budget ad of them all.

This ad was a different game entirely, pretty much disliked by all but one member of the panel, largely for sending out a negative and confusing message to young LGBT+ people. One thought the overriding message was that a bisexual guy will betray you for a woman in the end, something no LGBT+ teen needs to see.

Such a major, youth-focused brand as H&M has the perfect stage to speak to young people about all manner of issues in a way that, if done right, will resonate with positive influence. To get the message so very wrong is a huge waste.

The LGBT+ community is constantly evolving, changing and maturing, so to offer singular recommendations for brands would be wrong – there is no one answer. The best way to develop your work with this vibrant community is to get involved in PrideAM.

We want to continue to encourage brave work; last month we unveiled our second annual Pride Brand Makeover, a free competition which challenges brands and agencies to reimagine a mainstream campaign for the LGBT+ audience.

The work doesn’t have to run  ideas, concepts and scamps are fine – but the winner will receive £100,000 of free ad space in Gay Times and be doing something fantastic for this cause about which we are so passionate.

It’s a low risk, low cost way to do some work in the LGBT+ space and gain valuable experience while doing their bit towards championing our quest for equality. PrideAM is an open and inclusive network and we welcome everyone, both LGBT+ and our straight allies. Get involved and join the debate.

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